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Fort Bridger, June 1877
After the letter I wrote to Andi, I found some new friends. I went to bed one night in early May and woke up the next morning to find a clump of teepees on our fort’s side of the river. There were seven teepees. I did my chores as quick as a wink to see who the fort’s new neighbors were. Then I mounted Midnight and took off like a flash.
“Riley,” Pa called out as Midnight and I streaked toward the open fort gate. “Where are you off to in such and all-fired hurry?”
“Teepees, Pa!” I cried, yanking Midnight to a stop. “I wanna meet the Indians.”
Pa grinned. “They’re Shoshone and here to trade for blankets, iron pots, and anything else we can come to an agreement on. It’s a small band, and they’re quite friendly. The colonel and I spoke with their chief last night when they set up camp.” He smiled. “I think there are some children your age.”
With a yee-haw, I plunged my bare feet into Midnight’s sides, and he leaped forward. I heard Pa chuckling in the background and an answering yee-haw from one of the soldiers. Then more laughter from the rest of Pa’s troop. They’re a good bunch of cavalry riders. A little wild, but Pa keeps them in line. I’m not entirely sure what they do, since there are no Indian Wars these days. Maybe they keep travelers from behaving badly and make sure nobody gets into any fights. Like I wrote in my letter to Andi, nothing ever happens here . . . well, until today!
It took about two minutes to cover the ground between the fort and the Indian camp. When I pulled Midnight to a stop just before the teepees, a couple of women and kids looked up. Most were little ones, but two boys about my age threw off the blankets from around their shoulders and jumped to their feet. They were grinning like possums.
“Howdy!” I yelled, sliding off Midnight’s bare back.
“How-deee,” one of the boys called back. I thought that meant we might be able to talk to each other. Boy howdy, was I ever wrong. “Howdy” and “thanks” seemed to be the only English words they knew. That ended up not mattering one little bit. The two boys my age fixed their eyes on Midnight.
“I . . . Washakie,” the taller boy pointed to himself. Then he pointed to Midnight and indicated that he wanted to ride him.
I remembered a similar scene a few years back. Andi and I had found ourselves with the Yokut tribe after we got lost on the Circle C. A boy grabbed Midnight and took off on him. I was so scared, but Andi was more frightened. It all turned out in the end, but I was sure glad this kid asked first. I nodded. “Riley,” I said, slamming a palm against my chest.
Not to be outdone, the younger boy pushed forward. “Lemhi,” he said. Then he pointed to Midnight. I nodded again. When the two boys had scrambled up on Midnight’s back, Washakie waved at me to join them.
“You bet!” I hollered and climbed up between them. I didn’t care if Washakie controlled the reins. I figured he was probably a better rider than I was. He gave a loud yell, and the three of us were off like a cannon shot! We all hollered as loud as we could, trying to outdo each other. Midnight never slowed. He didn’t sweat either. He seemed to be having the time of his life, just like I was. We ended up in the river (it was awfully hot that day), where the three of us rolled off Midnight and splashed into the chest-high water.
I hadn’t had this much fun since leaving the Circle C. These boys, whom I couldn’t even talk to, felt closer to me than that horrible gang back on Alcatraz. We didn’t need any words. We all knew what we liked–horses–and fast ones!
The boys chattered and signed until I knew they wanted to race. They found horses and mounted. I mounted Midnight, and the race was on. Half the tribe (maybe a dozen or so adults) scurried out of the way, whistling and catcalling our race. The men didn’t seem to care that the two young boys had commandeered the grown-ups’ horses. Just then, I remembered telling Andi all those years ago that I sure wish I could live with the Indians. Now I knew why. This was why. Horses and freedom. I decided if I couldn’t live with them, this was the next-best thing.
Washakie won with his pinto mustang-looking gelding. I grinned and nodded my acceptance. When I was about to head back to the fort–the sun was getting mighty low and Mama might be worried–the boys shook their heads and dragged me to the cooking fire. I was invited for supper! I reckon Washakie and Lemhi were just as tired of their own company as I was with my own lonely self. And they weren’t about to lose their new friend!
Supper sealed our friendship. When I dug into my pocket and drew out my second-best pocketknife to trade for the fun day I’d had, Washakie’s face broke into a wide smile. I pointed to Lemhi, so Washakie would know he had to share it with his brother (if Lemhi really was his brother. They did look awfully alike). Both boys nodded.
From that day on, Washakie, Lemhi, and I were inseparable. I spent many nights in their teepees or under the stars. Ma let my hair grow past my ears until it nearly brushed my shoulders. I’m quick with languages, and during the rest of May and all of June, I learned to speak Shoshone pretty well. The boys laughed until tears streamed down their faces at some of my pronunciations, but I didn’t care. I was having the time of my life–wild, free, and full of summer antics.
The boys taught me how to break a wild horse using the river. I’d never seen such a thing. They also taught me a trick or two about communicating with horses. I always thought Midnight and I knew what the other was thinking, but after being with Washakie and Lemhi, Midnight and I got along even better!
Mama complained to Pa about me neglecting my school lessons, but Pa waved it away. “This is the kind of education Riley needs. He’ll learn more being with the Shoshones about real life and about horses than another man could learn in a year from books. Let him be, Carrie.”
Thank you, Pa, I thought quietly. And thank You, God, for sending Pa to a teensy-weensy fort in the middle of Wyoming Territory.
June sped by, and talk of the fort closing went around and around. When it was time to pack up and move on to a new fort–Fort Laramie, also in Wyoming but in the eastern part of the state–I was sad to go. Washakie and Lemhi presented me with a bow and a quiver of arrows they had made themselves. I was overwhelmed. I dug out my best pocketknife and gave it to the boys, so they could each have their own.
Pa whistled when he saw the gift of bow and arrows. “That is a princely gift, son. Care for them well and they will serve you for a long time.”
I intended to. On our last night, I learned the tribe was moving on to the buffalo hunting grounds for a month, so even if I’d stayed at Fort Bridger, I would have lost my friends. Washakie, Lemhi, and I took one last ride on the prairie under the moon. We looked at the moon and I told them about God the best I could. They nodded, like they understood. After that, we didn’t speak. We just watched the moon cross the sky. Then I went back to the fort, and my friends went back to their tribe.
I wonder if I will ever see Washakie and Lemhi again.